Can Teacher Come Out and Play?

When I started reading that a public school in New York was called Quest to Learn, I thought at first that I’d bumped into either a send-up or another article on branding—like, say, a story about a new convenience store named Quest to Graze or about a family farm calling itself Quest to Bring In the Sorghum Harvest. The impression of parody or irony deepened as I read that the school offered a course in video games called Sports for the Mind,  “a primary space of practice attuned to new media literacies, which are multimodal and multicultural, operating as they do within specific contexts for specific purposes.” Things became yet more complicated when the reporter advised us readers that this class was “really…a class in technology and game design [emphasis added].” Is the reporter winking and nodding at the helping of baloney offered as a course description while letting us in on its secret?

We are no closer to disambiguation after a long description of a lesson in “enemy movement” in this class, during which the teacher navigates his “sprite” through a maze pullulating with hostile “spiky-headed robots” and into a goal zone. The lesson reaches its climax when the teacher attains the goal with a mere two seconds to spare, causing the students to cheer, pump their fists, mock-swoon, etc. All that’s needed to make it a perfect Hollywood teacher movie moment is the swelling choir of brass and string instruments, but it doesn’t make sense. If this is a lesson in “enemy movement” in a course on the design of technology and games, the reader wonders why no designing has been done; no enemies’ moves have been analyzed; no principles of design have been elucidated, explained, or practiced; and no learning of any kind has been seen or verified.

The key to the mystery appears to be a question-and-answer about sixty lines into the story: “Had he taught anything? Had they learned anything? It depended, really, on how you wanted to think about teaching and learning.”  When I see a line like this, I begin to fear that the writer will start talking about “paradigm shifts,” and that is exactly what happens. Another idea for liberating our thoughts about teaching and learning from actual teaching and actual learning requires “new thinking.” We see it here rising like a turkey that believes it’s a phoenix from yet another educational ash-heap. The ashes came from a bonfire in which “teachers gave up the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon[,]… reconfigured the foundation on which a century of learning has been built,….blurred the lines between academic subjects, and reimagined the typical American classroom” in order to see what would happen if they did so. Surely only one thing could happen, which explains why so many of education’s pell-mell reforms fail. (William Spady, who has spent much of his professional career promoting “outcome-based education,” used to describe its adoption as requiring a “paradigm shift.” During a two-day workshop for administrators given in 1990, which I attended as a teacher on sufferance, he and his faithful sidekick appeared on the second day wearing t-shirts proclaiming that SHIFT HAPPENS. So it does.)

The argument for all the turmoil this article advocates comes down to three propositions: that children are becoming game-oriented, and so education should too; that kids find games fun, so they should find their classrooms fun in much the same ways; and that classrooms will be left behind if they do not innovate, usually in ways requiring lots of expensive purchases and consultations.

To take the last argument first, some years ago I went to an Indian cultural center operated by the Indian High Commission to watch a film about education in India. The setting was a school whose classroom was the shade under a large tree. Students sat on the ground, except when the teacher addressed them. Then they would spring up with alacrity so they could be standing when they answered him. If this is a feeder school for Bangalore or the Indian Institutes of Technology, where is our argument? I mean that question in two senses. Where is the argument from necessity if (at least some) Indians can become the engineers and designers of tomorrow by starting under the shade-trees of today? And where is the general hope in methods that require funding of a school on a scale achievable only by supplements from an immense private foundation and a school district with a budget in the billions? Many schools, even in the U.S., do not have much bigger facilities budgets than that Indian school’s watering bill (though it might repay study to examine how Finnish schools, generally acknowledged as the world’s best, make do with rather less funding than American schools get).

To answer the second proposition we may start with William Blake’s apt and characteristic observation that “I love fun, but too much fun is of all things most loathsome.” This from a man who penned a poem that is one of the great short critiques of grimly bad education. He still managed to see, as we should, that we must not overdo a good thing. We then move past Blake to view the photograph that appears at the top of the article I am writing about. It shows three children, gadgets in hand, looking excitedly and intently at something, presumably a game screen, behind the photographer. If this is what education-by-games means, surely it must be worth doing if they are so involved in it? When I saw this picture, I thought of another, taken in the early 1960’s by Alfred Eisenstadt. The kids in this picture are just as absorbed as, and perhaps more worried than, our three students. What are they so absorbed by? A puppet show. The proposal attached to the New Paradigm is to enter an arms race of thrills requiring gadgets whose costs will be immense but whose benefits to students may be achievable much more cheaply.

To the first argument I reply with Flannery O’Connor, always helpfully astringent and final: “Ours is the first age in history that has asked the child what he would tolerate learning,” or, I would add, how he would tolerate learning it. Since the kids are not in the position to know the answer to the question What will I learn?, we must put our discretion and the courage of our convictions at the service of the education we lay out–not for their amusement, but for their instruction.


JB and the Benelux Boys: Flying over the Radar of Value-added Learning

Years ago we had a new American 9th-grade student whom I’ll call JB. His father was in business development for a large international firm, and whether JB remained in our school or not would depend on whether his father’s efforts were successful. From the start I thought that the boy had something special either to offer or to take away from an English class.

I was right, but sometimes what he had to offer was more than I felt like taking. He had an astonishing facility at classroom leadership that quietly but firmly challenged his teachers. One day he and almost every one of his classmates arrived in class tardy. As usual, his presence was unobtrusive as he sidled in, not at all exultant in successful mass action. My usual punishment for tardies was to have the offender sit in the school yard outside the classroom to meditate for half an hour or 45 minutes on the need for punctuality.

A tardy student had the choice  of sun or shade. For the time stipulated, he or she would sit in a chair without books or electronic entertainment for the course of the meditation. After ten or fifteen minutes of silence and nothing to do, meditation would usually lead the latecomer to a bit of regret that he was alone, silent, and idle. Views that had tantalized the tardy student when they lay on the other side of a beckoning window palled when they surrounded him. Passersby would tease him or her for having to meditate. Thirty to forty-five minutes thus spent usually led meditators to a firm resolution to be on time in the future: it was not the kind of school where punished students meditated and then enacted violent revenge on The Enemy.

But a whole class! Students must learn to expect a certain consistency and firmness from their teachers, yet I wondered whether having them all “meditate” would be an instance of that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds. No, I decided, it wouldn’t be, so I quietly told them to take their chairs and follow me outdoors. I placed them without fuss at some distance from each other one by one. When JB’s turn came to sit in mediation, he looked at me incredulously and said in his usual quiet way, “You are going to have an entire class meditate?” “Well,” I answered, “The entire class was tardy.” It was the last time he engaged in one of his exercises in alternative leadership.

That was good because it meant that he could give his entire effort to improving his writing. One knows that some students have a latent talent for writing that has been warped by uncorrected bad habits. JB was one of those. He could find ideas, good ones, but he always had to track in a lot of rubbish with them: clichés, paragraphs that wrote themselves only slowly and tentatively into a topic, the too-frequent use of it is and there as expletives, too much passive voice, and rhetorical inflation.

When he brought a draft in for the doctor’s visit, we spent some time at it. He was, as I guessed he would be, a quick study; and he rebelled much less energetically against rules and strictures of usage and editorial advice than against the demands of punctuality and regular attendance at class. I don’t usually expect 9th-graders to be sensitive to all the stuff that he got—and was evidently getting for the first time. In the course of the year his writing improved remarkably, going way beyond where 9th-graders usually go.

His father didn’t turn up the hoped-for business, so JB left our school after only a year—something that I heard he had done before. Maybe a feral style in one so talented was the result of transferring from school to school before his long-term instruction, as opposed to his annualized value-added learning, could add up. Maybe the schools he attended concentrated on averaged additions of value without regard to individual sums, as it were, or to dividends to be gained by individuals in the future. I was sorry to see him go.

A number of years later I had an email from—who else?—JB, who now writes for a living. He credited me with turning him towards the long-term concern with his writing that ultimately determined his choice of a career. I report his story not to toot my own horn but to suggest how some important conditions of teaching and learning can escape the various nets of value-addition, the obsession with skills instead of skill, and a counterproductive present-mindedness of concern that ignores what my former colleague called “seed-planting.” I am sorry to think that under value-added learning the main satisfaction that a year with JB would bring a teacher is relief at an end to adolescent rebelliousness and a minuscule rise in “average scores.” I am sorrier to think that much of what JB accomplished during that year would escape the standardized tests set to capture evidence of 9th-grade learning.

Lest my readers think that these conditions matter only for kids headed in writerly directions, I want to mention the Benelux Boys. One was from Holland; the other was a Dutch-speaking Belgian. I had them both for the International Baccalaureate Program’s course in Theory of Knowledge. Both were capable and diligent, one of them more so than the other. They didn’t start to study seriously in English till they were in high school.

I taught ToK, as it is known, using among other things a somewhat difficult reading-list drawn from all kinds of writers of the present and past: Aristotle, St. Anselm, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Kuhn, Susan Sontag, Karl Popper, Malcolm Gladwell, Isak Dinesen, William James, Jacob Burckhardt, Hannah Arendt. The class was fundamentally a colloquium with lots of discussion and Socratic questioning, though we did many things other than read, parse, question, and discuss. They included writing, which I examined and commented on closely.

The Benelux Boys acquitted themselves well in that course and were graduated, the Dutch boy with high honors, and were both accepted for the international business program offered in English at the University of Maastricht. After their first year they showed up in my classroom for a visit. The purpose was to thank me for the ToK course.

In the chapter “The Road to Life Adjustment” from his classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life Richard Hofstadter deplores the persistent deprecation in American education of the “transfer effect,” by which intellectual attainments taught in one course transfer their effectiveness to efforts made in others. He notes this persistence in the face of solid evidence and the authority of such respected educators as Jerome Bruner. That book, forty-five years old and fresh as May, should give pause to today’s narrowly focused educational efforts to establish a curriculum for the “delivery” of instruction aimed at “adding value” over the course of a year instead of a lifetime, and at educational demands made for the sake of vocational training taken narrowly.

The Benelux Boys told me that ToK gave them a better preparation for their business course than anything else they had studied because it taught them how to work productively within a language, how to read and parse, how to ask questions of a reading and of each other, and how to evaluate what was presented to their consideration. They also said it conferred an advantage on them over their European classmates whose education had been more overtly a kind of  “vocational preparation.”

With all the benefit to be gained in high school by the marvelous reading available, it seems a deep, deep shame that some schools and districts are spending their book budgets on books of test preparation instead of novels, histories, or anthologies like the Introduction to the Great Books, and that they can claim it is better for their students to have read such stuff than to have worked their way through the writers I named above. I mean not just in preparation for careers in the clouds but careers as writers, businessmen, and human beings who lead good lives.


Testing 2

We can tell a good exam by what it does and by what it does not do:


  • distinguish between remembering and understanding
  • require students not just to know stuff but to use it
  • distinguish between sound evaluation and unjustified holding-forth
  • require at least some qualitative distinction among the grades awarded, to be judged by the teacher
  • require good writing whenever it requires writing at all
  • allow the marriage of cow and bull (see below)
  • provide opportunity for learning as well as for demonstration

Does not

  • reward guesswork
  • reward bull or baloney
  • comprise disjecta membra
  • invite the “montillation effect” (see below)

Since there is so much positive to say about a good exam, we can afford to turn first and briefly to what a good exam does not do, thereby getting it out of the way. In my last blog but one, I discussed the rewarding of guesswork and hope that I made a good case against the kind of test that does so.

What I didn’t speak about is another kind of guesswork, called “bull.” In using bull the student essayist slings concepts, generalizations, and abstractions untamed and undisciplined by connections to the world of persons, places, and things, usually in the hope of slipping by with a passable grade. Professor William G. Perry discussed this problem in his essay “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts.” The essay is very much of its time and place, but it discusses what seems to be an ever-present problem: how to balance the need for concept-work and ideation with the need for an anchor in reality that a command of relevant detail provides. He calls familiarity with such detail “cow” to suggest a balance with the “bull” of empty ideas, and with tongue in cheek recommends a marriage in every good essay. Where an essay is inflated with senseless abstraction and other kinds of hot air, it needs deflation with a sharp red pencil. And, of course, a chaotic collection of snippets that never rises above recall and naming must be downgraded too.

In a prior posting I discussed the “montillation effect,”  in which a student can get  a good or even perfect score in a “test” of “knowledge” that that student doesn’t even understand. We have to be sure that in testing comprehension we are not just inviting students to mimic it, repeating what they have heard about the “montillation of traxoline.”

Another couple of problems come to mind when I think about vocabulary lists. Suppose that you have given your students some words with definitions to be learned: base – a number that is raised to a power; horse – large solid-hoofed herbivorous mammal; network – a thing reticulated or decussated at equal intervals with interstices between the intersections; reed – fibrous core of rattan used in basket weaving; syzygy – a pair of Gnostic aeons male and female. Now, I’ve exaggerated a problem in such lists: that it might leave a student lost—farblondzhet! How does one gain purchase on some of this stuff? The temptation will be simply to memorize the definitions without knowing what they mean. That temptation will be especially strong in a student who knows that he will be examined on his vocabulary by, say, a set of matching questions linking definition and word, a task that has nothing to do with understanding.

The second problem lies in coming to terms with context: even though syzygy is a great word for playing hangman, most of its uses will depend on a grounding that the student is unlikely to have or ever to get: astrology and Gnosticism. Many more words than syzygy will seem bewilderingly uncontextualized to a 9th-grader, a fact that teachers of “test-taking skills” may be reluctant to admit. Learned this way, such words will seem to students like beached monsters of the deep. The study of words learned in context is far likelier to lead to their being useful and used aptly in a carefully prepared essay question, which itself makes their use more likely. A properly set essay question will invite the use of vocabulary learned during the study of a text containing new words.

Setting good essay questions is harder than one thinks, but it is essential to elicit the best possible responses from students—responses that show they have been doing real live thinking while working up their answer. Studying for my teaching credential, I was given distinctions between essay and “objective” tests that were mainly of utility for the teacher: setting an essay test was “easy” but we would be paid back in having to grade responses. Harder was the construction of a good multiple-choice “objective” exam, but it led to more reliable and less troublesome assignment of grades. For the present I don’t want to get into the false distinction between an “objective” test and an essay test, but I do want to assert that forming a feasible yet demanding essay question takes careful thought. That sort of thinking does become easier with familiarity, unlike putting together a hundred multiple-choice questions, which will always require a certain amount of grunt-work. But the question, however long in formation, should demand thinking of all students while offering opportunities for imaginative, thoughtful, well-informed thinking and writing (or their lack) that will distinguish each grade of student from the others.

A word, or more than a word, might be said about letting tests give students a chance to learn as well as to perform. There are a lot of ways to ensure that this happens, but one way that can be really effective is to give out essay questions ahead of time and require that students work up notes to answers in the classes before the exam. If you are expecting to have time for two essays during the exam, set five or ten questions beforehand and give them out. Some questions can test understanding and application of material covered explicitly; some might require them to extend their thinking to deal with problems or issues not explicitly covered. Class then becomes a chance for work, solitary or in groups, silent or talkative at need, with the teacher intervening in individual or group cases, maybe even giving a special mini-lesson to the class as a whole. It is amazing how productive one or two weeks of such preparation can be. Let them bring notes taken in their own hand (but not printed or copied) to the exam, and watch the notes multiply, though students must be warned that the notes may not constitute, in effect, a pre-written essay. Choosing which questions to have them answer is fairly simple: roll a ten-sided Dungeons and Dragons die or use some other random process. That gets the juices flowing even more than—one hopes—they already were.

Implied in the use of questions requiring students to handle stuff that may in some respects be new to them is a rejection of the use of “study guides” before tests. High school students’ study guides should be their own notes. If they don’t learn how to anticipate intellectual demands and respond to them with a readiness they have achieved themselves, they are missing one of the main learning-opportunities an exam can provide.

So, yes, students planning on university or demanding work must learn to handle encounters with surprise. Having done so, they will have the salutary experience, as Professor Barzun says, of disorientation, bewilderment, or momentary dismay followed by a “rallying of forces.” If students’ response to an exam must oscillate between boredom and cave-in, something is wrong in the preparation that such an exam or the study for it  has given them.


Added What?

Drive to the east of the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron and you will see some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. Drive to a certain small town there one day about thirteen years ago, and you would have seen some venerable outcroppings of humanity. Mr. S., the guest of honor at a party I attended, was retiring after thirty-five years of teaching the same grade in the same room of the same schoolhouse. One of the guests was the teacher he succeeded, who had taught him in that grade in that schoolhouse. Does it get any stabler than that?

By contrast, one of the schools I taught at had a 25 – 30% annual turnover in students. Its student body was drawn from families with parents on the move. In such circumstances one does one’s best with the students who appear in class only to vanish all too soon. (Well, some of them couldn’t vanish soon enough, but a teacher is nothing if not patient. I sometimes wonder whether being a farmer and cattle baron was Job’s second career, he having learned patience during a first career in the classroom.)

Schools in the U. S. operate across this spectrum, but in spite of the difficulty it would encounter working across such a spectrum, and in spite of other difficulties of implementation, schools and districts are moving towards the “acceptance” of a “formula” that “grades” teachers’ “effectiveness.” I am referring to “value-added learning,” which is not a formula, does not grade, does not measure effectiveness of teaching, and is meeting widespread (though not enough) resistance. It is not a formula because the variables are not commen­surable; it does not give an accurate grade because it does not evaluate things of an identifiable kind against a common standard; and it does not measure effectiveness because “effectiveness” here is the unjustified reification of sets of statistics into The Thing Effectiveness.

Take a number of students in a ninth-grade classroom in their first year of high school. At the beginning of the school year they take a test whose writers claim it can assess what they know in, say, English. In their second year, at the start of tenth grade, they take a test attached to  the same claim. It is in some cases the very same test, kept without provisions for security from year to year. Call the average score of the 9th-grade class AS1 and the average of their 10th-grade scores AS2. According to value-added learning, if AS1 is less than AS2,“value” has been “added” to the test-takers’ growing minds. This “value” is deemed by the proponents of this idea to have been “added” by their 9th-grade teacher.

There’s some illicit deeming going on here. The late great biologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man warned against reifying statistics, that is, taking numbers and turning them into “things” such as “intelligence” or “value.” Alfred Binet was allowed to finesse a concern about the nature of intelligence when, asked what intelligence was, he was reported to have said, “It is what my test measures.” We might be charmed by such insouciant superbity if we did not know the mischief caused by the misuse of intelligence tests since Binet invented the first one. This time we must be on guard against the mischief, and the first question for the guard to ask is On what basis or authority is it asserted that the score on a multiple-choice achievement test is “value”?

In any case, this view of value omits to consider the long-term good a teacher can do for students—what a former colleague of mine called “seed-planting.” She thought, perhaps naïvely or unbusinesslikely, that a good teacher’s benefit to a student can be lasting or can unfold only in the fullness of time. Professor Barzun thought it wise to give a teacher’s instruction ten or twenty years to see what it amounted to. The present-orientation of “value-added learning” discounts all that. To my former colleague’s pedagogy its question is, “Why are you planting all those trees and perennials—why are you cultivating that joyous and varied field—when you should be concentrating on a patch of what can be sown, grown, and mown in the same year?”

Cut grass lies frail;/Brief is the breath/Mown stalks exhale.—Philip Larkin

Cut grass has worth:/Better mown field/Than tree-clad earth.—Value-added Learning

It also asserts that all “value” is to be imputed to the teacher with no control for other variables. Did the student do independent reading? Did a newly invented gadget distract a number of students from their studies? Did a curtailed school lunch program leave students hungry and unready to learn? No matter, says “value-added learning.”

But even if we unwisely take the assertion of “value” as given, we still have two problems. One is that tests like these typically measure what they claim to measure only to a certain degree of accuracy. Where is the “value” in such tests? If someone wanted to say that “our tests allow us to make some tentative claims with a certain amount of confidence,” we might find in that statement a trustworthy caution. But that is not what these tests will be asked to do. They will be asked to show an exact and definite amount of “value” in a class, whose addition to prior values will in turn yield exact determinations of teachers’ effectiveness.

The other problem is what I will call Big Mac Immodesty. The Economist publishes from time to time its Big Mac Index to the relative value of the world’s major currencies. This index’s inventors assert with tongue firmly in cheek that the Big Mac hamburger is a mini-test of that value. They advise their readers to take the index with a “generous pinch of salt.” Do the proponents of “value-added learning” approach their instruments with the same becoming modesty? Not at all. In the Big Mac Index at least a cow is a cow and a bun is a bun, but in “value added learning” what bits of pedagogical produce are fungible across years? No matter: they will yield their numbers and we will use them. Our Big Mac index is to be swallowed salt-free and uninspected.

Then we get to the problem not faced by Mr. S before his retirement. In his school there was little or no turnover of students from year to year. What about schools whose populations turn over rapidly? Regardless of whether scores go up or down from year to year, they will not be measurements of the same kids. In such cases how can they be said to add anything to anything? If a statistical fluke leaves a school with an influx of poor students to replace an outflow of good ones, are its teachers to be blamed when “value” is “subtracted”? What if a school is reported to have poor test scores, prompting an exodus of students to neighboring or charter schools? Evidence suggests that these educational migrants tend to be brighter and more motivated than the students they leave behind. “Value-added learning” will not report an exodus; it will report a decline in “value,” and the teachers “responsible” for this “value-subtraction” will be deemed “ineffective.”

We also have problems with Campbell’s Law (See my posting “℞ Stone Tablets”): testing is causing corruption, with schools scheduling outings for their Special Ed groups on Testing Day, subjecting poor students to “counseling out,” etc.

Mr. S. briefly touched on his relief that he was retiring when he did, this even though he survived educationist vicissitudes from the early ‘60’s to the late ‘90’s. (Another former colleague, when trying to achieve detachment from the ups and downs of his career in teaching, would sometimes look at me with a smile and say, “Dem vicissitudes!” Indeed.)  I sometimes wonder what Mr. S. thinks of this nonsense, but more, I hope that he is having a delightful retirement, secure from depredations on his reputation and pay, and free at last of  the bad consequences of educationist baloney.